BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. What a difference three years make. In 2015, when Federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh offered this throwaway line in a law school speech, he got the expected snickers about the vague impropriety of prep school life.
BRETT KAVANAUGH: What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep. That’s been a good thing for all of us, I think.
BOB GARFIELD: This week, it sounds almost like a confession, in the face of an allegation from college professor Christine Blasey Ford that when she was a teenager at a house party, then-17-year-old Kavanaugh and a pal attempted to rape her. Or maybe the judge was slying confessing to teepeeing the headmaster’s oak tree. These are unknowns.
What we have learned in the wake of this bombshell in Kavanaugh's path to the US Supreme Court is really what we already knew. When the cameras are running, you can count on the actors to play to type.
If the stakes weren't so high for the individuals, for the Supreme Court and for the nation, it would be almost comical, politicians from both sides of the aisle trying their hardest to project concern about the truth of a long-ago episode, when their overriding concern is the fate of Brett Kavanaugh's nomination. Never mind boys will be boys, this is Congress being Congress, part chess match, part morality play, part Rorschach test.
Republicans see just the latest Borking of a conservative High Court nominee, a replay of the Anita Hill sexual harassment allegations about Justice Clarence Thomas and the vilification in 1987 of Robert Bork, himself. Democrats see another panel of old white men deferring to a powerful male as a courageous female victim is disbelieved and dragged through the mud. They must, with all due horror, consider the implications, as did Senator Kirsten Gillibrand --
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: If he has this violent background where he has assaulted a woman and covered her mouth when she's trying to scream, then why should he be a justice on the Supreme Court with a lifetime appointment who’s going to make fundamental decisions about women's lives?
BOB GARFIELD: -- and decried the Republican frenzy to hold a vote, like Senator Patrick Leahy --
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: This rush to judgment makes you wonder what else are they trying to hide. The only reason for rushing it is if you don’t want other facts to come out.
BOB GARFIELD: -- while somehow pretending the new allegation isn’t a fortuitous last-best chance to derail the nomination. It’s an even more delicate dance for Republicans who need to convey deep doubt about a so-called “11th hour accusation,” stave off an investigation that might corroborate the professor’s story, all the while seeming appropriately respectful and woke in advance of the first midterm elections in the #MeToo era. It seemed as if they’d even prevailed on Donald Trump to be borderline under-bearing.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, if, if Kavanaugh did what he’s accused of doing would that be disqualifying?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I really would want to see what she has to say. But I want to give it all the time they need. If she shows up, that would be wonderful. If she doesn’t show up, that would be unfortunate.
BOB GARFIELD: But fat chance. By Friday morning, the president’s decorum offensive was over.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The president has tweeted, again, and maybe fair to say gloves are off as far as Dr. Ford is concerned. I’m going to read the tweet in full. He said the following, he tweeted the following: “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!” Exclamation point.
BOB GARFIELD: And even before the tweets, this was a confirmation process that in a rush to partisan judgment suppressed tens of thousands of pages of records from the nominee’s work in the George W. Bush White House. No great surprise then that the bombshell came courtesy not of legislators but of the media, much to the chagrin of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley.
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY: I have hopes that this person who pleaded through the Washington Post -- and I didn’t learn about, anything about this until I read her name in the Washington Post.
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BOB GARFIELD: Yes, once again in the Trump era hall of mirrors, it fell to the media to mediate and, if there is truth to be found, we can rely on nobody else to locate it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One fact often noted is that in 1992, the year after Anita Hill's testimony, a record number of women ran for office and won. Kai Wright, host of the WNYC podcast The United States of Anxiety, looked at the 1992 elections from the vantage point of two well-placed women.
KAI WRIGHT: Two women already on the inside, already trying to make one of Washington's most doggedly male institutions work for them too.
NANCY LANDON KASSEBAUM: This is Nancy Landon Kassebaum and I served in the Senate from 1979 to 1997.
KAI WRIGHT: Only 13 women had ever been there when she arrived. And Kassebaum, a Republican, mind you, was just the second woman who got in without filling the seat of someone who had died.
NANCY LANDON KASSEBAUM: And I was asked a lot of times, what’s it like being the only woman, are you strong enough? I said, if I worried about all those kind of things, I'd never get anything done.
KAI WRIGHT: She was known as an ideological bridge between the parties, as someone who sought common ground to solve problems. And then in 1986 a Baltimore Democrat joined her in the Senate, and nobody ever asked if she was strong enough.
BARBARA MIKULSKI: When I came to the Senate, everybody wondered, what would Barbara Mikulski be like? Would she be mouthy, bodacious?
I already had a reputation for 10 years in the House of being a strong advocate for what I believed in.
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KAI WRIGHT: It was just the two of them and 98 men. Mikulski knew right away that if she was going to succeed she’d have to crack the boy’s code.
BARBARA MIKULSKI: How to get on that right committee, how to wend my way in a seniority system when there was no other Democratic woman? Also, what were not only the formal channels of power in the Senate but what were the informal channels?
KAI WRIGHT: Like the after-hour sessions she used to have with Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd.
BARBARA MIKULSKI: So Kennedy and Dodd, whenever I’d have a hard day, whenever there would be an old guy who thought he was being funny and it was a joke from, like, 1840, we would go out to a restaurant called La Colline. They would encourage me, they’d say, oh, he’s a jerk. They would pour me another glass of wine and, and I felt like I wanted to, like, spit in the bucket and go back the next day.
KAI WRIGHT: And that was the world of the Senate as of the summer of 1991, when Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court, who to many is just as significant to civil rights history as Martin Luther King, Jr.
JUSTICE THURGOOD MARSHALL: And any action on the part of any official in Arkansas or any private individual to oppose desegregation of the schools of Little Rock is a deliberately calculated violation of the law.
KAI WRIGHT: So this was a big moment, just like it is now, frankly. And what does President Bush do? He appoints Clarence Thomas, a black conservative who was primarily known for his opposition to affirmative action. That alone was explosive, and then.
ANITA HILL: Mr. Chairman, Senator Thurmond, members of the Committee, my name is Anita F. Hill and I am a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma.
KAI WRIGHT: Just two days before the Senate was to vote on the nomination, Anita Hill’s story broke. She told a horrific account of what it was like to work for Thomas when she served under him in the Reagan administration.
THEN-COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN JOE BIDEN: Can you tell the Committee what was the most embarrassing of all the incidences that you have alleged?
ANITA HILL: I think the one that was the most embarrassing was his discussion of, of pornography involving these women with large breasts and, and h – engaged in a variety of sex with different people or animals. That was the thing that embarrassed me the most and made me feel the most humiliated.
KAI WRIGHT: She thought she was coming to a hearing and the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee had organized it as if it were a trial.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: You said that you took it to mean that Judge Thomas wanted to have sex with you but, in fact, he never did ask you to have sex, correct?
ANITA HILL: No, he did not ask me to have sex. He did continually pressure me to go out with him, continually. And he would not accept my explanation as one as being, being valid.
KAI WRIGHT: It became a national event. Everybody tuned in to watch 14 white men, some of them still powerful figures in Washington today, interrogate this black woman on live television.
BARBARA MIKULSKI: It was very clear that there had to be more women and that we needed to be on every committee.
KAI WRIGHT: More women ran for federal office that year than ever before. Four more women came into the Senate, including the first-ever black woman.
CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: Some guys at the door didn’t want to let me in. They were like, where are you going? [LAUGHS] And so –-
KAI WRIGHT: Carol Moseley Braun was actually motivated to run even before Anita Hill emerged. The idea of Clarence Thomas taking over Thurgood Marshall’s seat, that was enough to move her by itself. And the fact that her Democratic senator, Alan Dixon planned to support Thomas's nomination?
CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: I was horrified.
KAI WRIGHT: So she ran against him and she made the Court a centerpiece of her campaign. But Anita Hill actually kind of complicated things because in the state’s black community some powerbrokers connected with Thomas's claim that he was, as he put it, victim of a high-tech lynching.
CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: Being both black and female, I had to go into the black churches and understand that this was not something they wanted to talk about. And, frankly, it took one of my campaign workers to really draw the picture for me, and we were sitting up in the church one day and he pointed to the, the choir and all the pastors were all male and the choir was [LAUGHS] almost entirely female.
KAI WRIGHT: Braun navigated that tricky terrain and joined the historic class of 1992 in Washington. More women entered Congress that year than ever before. Twenty-four women won new House seats in addition to the four women who came into the Senate. But Barbara Mikulski had already been in the Senate for a full term, so she gathered all those notes she’d taken while watching her male allies, all the tips on formal and informal channels of power and she turned them into a memo for the incoming women.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: It started off just as a coffee in her office and then we started saying, let's do this more often.
KAI WRIGHT: Patty Murray was one of the four women who won Senate seats that year. She had been in the legislature in Washington State but before Anita Hill she says the US Senate rarely even crossed her mind.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: And, of course, the day after I won the election it was, like, oh my gosh, now what do I do? I have to pack my clothes and move to DC, I’ve got to find a place to live; I need to dive into this. And there was Barbara Mikulski, and she was amazing.
KAI WRIGHT: Over the next 25 years, Mikulski became known as the dean of the Senate women. She raised money to get women elected. She pushed party leadership to put women in real positions of authority. And as Republican women began winning office, she organized across the aisle, as well. She retired in 2016, having spent more years in the Senate than any woman in history. It is arguably the most powerful legislative body in the world. Women went from 2% of that body in 1991 to nearly a quarter of it today.
AMY WALTER: But the fact is that it's 26 years later and we’re still talking about the fact that having a whole bunch of women run for Congress is worthy of a news story tells you that women are still seen as an anomaly and not as some normal part of the political scene.
KAI WRIGHT: That’s Amy Walter. She’s the national editor of The Cook Political Report and a host of The Takeaway here at WNYC. People like Amy who have been watching elections for decades say, sure, 1992, it was exciting and it was progress but it's too easy to forget what happened just two years later in the 1994 elections.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER RICHARD GEPHARDT: With resignation but with resolve, I hereby end 40 years of Democratic rule of this house.
KAI WRIGHT: History has recorded ‘94 as a Republican wave election for Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America. The themes were familiar to 2016.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Now I recognize sadly that the Washington press corps is all too often the praetorian guard of the left.
KAI WRIGHT: And more than that, 1994 made history as a year of the man. Ever since the civil rights era, the male vote in presidential elections has trended to Republicans, a pattern driven by a huge migration of white men after Democrats embraced black voters. Congressional elections, however, they weren’t so gendered, not until 1994 when white men moved en masse to support congressional Republicans.
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Nearly 9 out of 10 House Republicans today are white men, while 6 out of 10 House Democrats are women or people of color. So the bitter partisan divide that we talk about now, it can also be understood as a divide over gender and race. And Amy Walter says that has been around from the beginning.
AMY WALTER: Who wrote the rules and who still benefits from the rules? The structures were built by and for certain people and women weren't around the table when those structures were being built.
KAI WRIGHT: Regardless of whether Kavanaugh is eventually confirmed, for many 2018 has become a bellwether for whether a majority of Americans are ready to build something new. For On the Media, I’m Kai Wright.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, to the men trying to redeem themselves after #MeToo, we offer some tips on how to apologize.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.